No matter where you go, it’s clear that one of the aspects of culture that is most important is food. Indeed, one of the best ways to truly experience local culture when you travel is to try the food. Food is a huge deal when it comes to culture. Nearly every culture has its own food, and its own customs associated with eating food.
Food and Special Occasions
Think about how important food is on special occasions. When we have birthdays in Western culture, cake and ice cream is a big part of the proceedings. Thanksgiving involves a turkey, Easter is about the ham. But, of course, it’s not just Western culture that makes food an interesting part of special occasions. Many cultures indulge in making lavishly delicious foods for special occasions, from great feasts in Islamic countries, to the treats served for Indian special occasions.
Food can also be symbolic. The Jewish passover comes to mind when I think of symbolic foods. Almost everything eaten during the Seder meal has specific meaning. The symbolism of the Seder meal is rather pronounced, and designed to help the partakers remember certain events and concepts. Other cultures have symbolic foods as well, which are eaten for specific reasons during special occasions and holidays. For a weekly symbolic food, consider the Eucharist. Holy Communion is the very essence of taking food, combining it with ritual and special occasion, and turning it into a symbol.
How We Eat
How we eat food also varies from culture to culture. The utensils used, as well as how they are used (in modern Thai culture, the fork and spoon are used simultaneously, with the spoon standing in as the knife), are also a part of culture and food. Place settings are also part of the culture of how we eat. Just going to a restaurant in the United States usually yields at least two forks, and possibly doubles of other utensils. Knowing which utensil to use, and when, is an important part of food culture, whether you are using knife and fork, your hands, or picking up your chopsticks.
In some cases, tradition dictates that food is consumed in a certain way. For example, when eating nigiri sushi you want to do so in a way that the first thing touching your tongue is the fish — that’s what you want to taste first! And, of course, in the United States and other Western countries, there is an order to what we eat. We have appetizers, salads, soups, entrees, and desserts. In some cases, there are numerous courses, served in a specific order, depending on the formality of the dinner.
Understanding the culture of food can make for a very interesting visit to any country, and can help you avoid gaffes. Once you know what is good, and how it is eaten (my husband often chides me for not eating enough rice when we eat Filipino food), you can have a richer experience, whether you stay at home, or travel abroad.